GLOUSTER, Ohio — Face one direction on Johnson Run Road and you’d see an idyllic country home. Woods surround the log cabin-style house in Trimble Township, about 10 minutes outside of Glouster.
Turn around and directly across the road, about 150 feet from the house, you’d see the controversial Johnson Run strip mine operated on the same family’s property. The mine opened in May 2022, and operations now stretch about a quarter mile along the property, between the road and the forest.
Although a cacophony of machinery sounds throughout the site every weekday—replacing the sounds of croaking bullfrogs that used to live at a now-destroyed pond on the property—it was not the homeowners’ decision to open the mine.
The property’s mineral rights have been split from the property for nearly 100 years. Until recently, the owner was Drydock Coal Company.
“Split estates”—in which the surface land is owned by one party and the mineral rights are owned by another—are very common in Appalachia and mineral-rich rural places throughout America. The practice has its origins in the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916. Law surrounding split estates generally favors mineral owners over surface land owners.
The mineral rights at Johnson Run recently traded hands to an unusual new owner: the Athens Conservancy, a local nonprofit dedicated to conservation.
The Conservancy’s Acquisition
In December 2022, the conservancy announced it had accepted a donation of 10,000 acres of coal mining mineral rights in northern Athens County—including 1,100 acres with a pre-existing lease agreement for an active mine.
That refers to the strip mine on Johnson Road. The conservancy did not share details about the mine in its announcement, although a frequently asked questions page on the conservancy’s website shares the mine’s name.
The conservancy said it intends “to leave the vast majority of the coal untouched and in the ground to help protect the community and benefit the environment.”
Local attorney Chris Gerig facilitated the donation of the mineral rights to the conservancy. Transitional Resources, LLC, which Gerig described as a shell company he represents, ended up with the mineral rights after they were deeded over from now-defunct Drydock Coal, Gerig said.
Gerig hopes that the conservancy will hold the coal mineral rights “in trust for the betterment of all the people of Athens County.”
“The thought was that [the Athens Conservancy] was the best entity to hold [the mineral rights] for the future of Athens County,” Gerig said. “We’ve always been very impressed with how the Athens Conservancy handles its assets and we felt like they would be an ideal beneficiary of those mineral rights.”
Transitional Resources acquired an open-end mortgage agreement for the mineral rights in 2021. As collateral for a $530,000 loan in 2001, Drydock initially mortgaged the mineral rights to Petro Quest, Inc., a Gerig family company. In 2006, Petro Quest transferred the rights to Stimson Ltd., another Gerig family company.
Transitional transferred the mineral rights to the conservancy in December 2022, with the exception of oil, gas and associated mineral rights. Both Gerig and conservancy board president Donna Goodman described rights to coal as the only mineral rights transferred to the conservancy.
In January, Transitional transferred the oil and gas rights to Edghart LTD, another company in Gerig’s family; Gerig said he’s still “doing some sorting out” regarding the oil and gas mineral rights. He may donate the oil and gas mineral rights to the conservancy at a later date, he said.
A ‘New Approach’
“We already protect land that has mineral rights with it. It’s not new to us, per se,” Goodman said. “But accepting just the mineral rights themselves without the land—that is a new approach.”
Molly Jo Stanley, Southeast Ohio regional director at the Ohio Environmental Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said she hopes the conservancy’s unusual acquisition of mineral rights with an active mine can help set a precedent for good.
“These mineral rights exist and somebody would have bought them” were they not donated, Stanley said.
The conservancy estimates their acquisition could keep about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
However, coal mining is already rare in a region that was once nearly synonymous with it. From 1885 to 1927, the Hocking Valley—home to the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”—was one of the world’s most productive coal fields, with Athens County its chief contributor.
Now, the Johnson Run mine is the only active mine in Athens County. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates mining in the state, there is only one other active mine in counties bordering Athens County, in Vinton County.
Despite the industry’s decline, the conservancy’s acquisition aims to protect other surface land owners from the possibility of future mining.
For surface landowners at the current mine, Gerig’s company’s donation to the conservancy doesn’t put them “in any real different position.”
“There is a long history to the separation of mineral rights by landowners in Ohio, with many of these transactions dating back more than a century,” Goodman said in a statement.
The surface landowners at Johnson Run spoke with the Independent initially, because they did not know the mineral rights had been transferred to the Athens Conservancy prior to the Independent’s inquiry. However, they later asked that the interview not be used and the Independent agreed to the request to respect their privacy.
A ‘Gorgeous Valley … Gone to Sh*t’
While the Athens Conservancy has pledged not to allow additional coal mining on the 10,000 acres, it cannot stop the pre-existing lease agreement on Johnson Run.
According to records from ODNR, that lease allows the Coshocton, Ohio-based company CCU Coal and Construction LLC to operate the Johnson Run strip mine until 2025. That timeline may be extended until 2033 as needed, Goodman said. CCU Coal and Construction did not respond to a request for comment.
Currently, only 300 acres are under an active mining permit; operations could expand or shrink within the next decade. After that, Goodman said the conservancy will not allow future mining at the site.
The mine opened despite a years-long fight from local environmental activists, who had criticized plans for the mine since 2016. Some of that criticism involved the planned discharge of toxic mining waste into waterways.
Roxanne Groff, who was involved in the campaign to stop the mine and is a former Athens County commissioner, said activists saw a victory when the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency adjusted discharge plans to protect sensitive environments and species in the Johnson Run stream.
Records Groff provided show Ohio EPA staff discussing sensitive coldwater fish in Johnson Run, toward which Groff said activists drew the agency’s attention.
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However, activists were ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the mine. Groff cried the last time she visited the mining site, she said.
“We worked so hard to try to prevent the damage,” Groff said. “There was this gorgeous valley … horses running in the field, and a beautiful stream.”
Now, much of the beauty Groff described has been destroyed—or, as Groff put it, “gone to shit.”
Groff called the destruction “devastating.” At the same time, she said the conservancy acquiring the mineral rights at Johnson Run, and on the approximately 8,900 acres that don’t have a pre-existing mining lease agreement, is “very positive.”
Mining Revenue for Conservation
Now that the conservancy owns the mineral rights at the property, it will generate revenue through the lease agreement with CCU Coal and Construction.
That will bring in $1.45 per ton of coal mined beginning later this year, Goodman told the Independent in a statement.
It’s unclear exactly how much coal remains to be mined at the Johnson Run strip mine.
In 2021, coal was sold to the energy power sector directly from mines for an average of $31.99 per ton, though price varies drastically depending on coal grade. Prices at surface mines were generally lower.
The conservancy has pledged to reinvest the royalties into the community, with specific plans to be determined by a committee of board members, including financial professionals.
“We realize that in the past, much of the profits from coal mining were not returned back into the Ohio communities where mining took place,” Goodman said in a statement. “We want to ensure that funds are used to further our goal to enhance air and water quality for the community, preserve natural spaces, and increase outdoor recreation opportunities.”
The committee is in the process of determining what those investments will look like, Goodman said.
Stanley, with the Ohio Environmental Council, said, “Everybody’s trying to earn money, and the hope is that earning money from the rights will actually go toward conservation in the future.”
CCU Coal & Construction is saving topsoil as it excavates at Johnson Run to eventually restore the surface land, as described in its permit and as regulated by ODNR and federal agencies. (The Athens Conservancy will not be involved in restoration efforts.)
However, much of the damage cannot be undone, Groff said—and as for the surface landowners, “they just want it to be over,” she added.
This article originally appeared on the Athens County Independent, a nonprofit local news organization covering Athens County, Ohio. It is republished with permission.